If I had to boil down my love of farming and gardening to a single plant, it would be the tomato plant. For many people, the tomato is the most important plant in the summer garden. We love our basil and sunflowers, zucchini and snap peas, but the tomato plant is essential.
When tomatoes start to show color, it is called “blushing.” In our family, the children love to race through the rows searching for the first ripe tomato among the green fruit. We celebrate that first one with the shehecheyanu prayer and eat it right in the field. Days later the first full bowl arrives on the table, and a few more sunny days later, they start to fill the black crates.
My first farming experience was working on a campus farm in college, and we had a bumper crop of tomatoes. I remember an endless tangle of vines and fruit as we fell behind on staking, tying and picking. In desperation, we made signs that said “U-Pick tomatoes” and invited neighbors to help us pick in exchange for free tomatoes. It made us laugh to point at passing cars and call out, “YOU pick the tomatoes.” A few showed up and filled bags, but we remained overwhelmed picking until the first hard frost turned the plants black and slack overnight.
Since that summer, I have tried to have at least one tomato plant to care for each summer—these days we tend thousands of plants on our farm. We deal with disease and pest pressure by planting lots of varieties during a long growing season. We plant early varieties in our covered hoop houses and later varieties in the field. We plant slicers and cherries, red, orange, purple and yellow, determinates and indeterminates and heirlooms.
Even during the inevitable glut of tomatoes when every available container is filled, you can sense that this moment is fleeting. Tomatoes do not last long. In the Chesapeake Bay region, it is the humidity that gets them. They like dry leaves, and moisture breeds disease and fungus that are hard to manage, especially on an organic farm. Any day could be the peak, and the downward slope can be fast and furious.
This month, many CSA members, farmers market shoppers and gardeners are overwhelmed with tomatoes. I know firsthand that making sauce and canning is a tall order. Few people are undaunted by boiling glass containers to put up lovely mason jars of sauce or salsa. If you have children dancing and sprinting though the kitchen, you will need some other options.
Fortunately, tomatoes are so much more flexible than you might realize. For example, they can be chopped for Israeli salad, roasted and packed in freezer bags, oven dried and frozen or juiced in a blender. However you use them, enjoy the excess. The fresh tomatoes will be gone all too soon.